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The new BMW M3 meets its 6cyl ancestors... and the M4

Never mind AMG or Audi RS, some of the M3's toughest foes are in the family

Published: 10 May 2021

An exhaustive family portrait would involve six generations of M3, the little E30 as dwarfed among them as an errant toddler in a football crowd. These are the last three six-cylinder M3s – perhaps the last if the G80’s eventual replacement goes hybrid or EV. The new BMW i4, with the higher peak power as the latest M3, certainly hints at the latter.

Gather them together and what’s clear is that controversy hasn’t infiltrated the M3 atmosphere via big grilles and a drift app; it’s been inherent in the car for decades. The E46 on the left of shot, so delectable to look at, brought the optional (and clunky) SMG paddleshift gearbox into the range. It’s easy to argue that – alongside Ferrari’s F1 transmission – that it helped hammer the first nails in the manual’s coffin.

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Taking us to the F80 on the right of shot: in its final year on sale, a paltry 0.5 per cent of UK customers went for a stick in the middle. We no longer get the option, funnily enough. Its own controversy was the introduction of turbocharging to the M3, with a side order of handling edge in its early days that was gradually ironed out with a facelift and Competition pack.

And here’s another stat that may surprise you: BMW sold almost twice as many F80-gen M3s as it did E90s. That’s because around two thirds of them were actually M4s. Where those of us who geek out on performance cars felt a bit affronted by the two-door M3 being renamed, those who buy or lease these things hit upon a new reason to defect from rivals.

So the split remains for the G80, and again BMW insists the two cars have been developed to handle identically. The M3’s four-door body is a little wider and taller than the M4 two-door but their key numbers – wheelbase and track widths – are exactly the same while their weight is separated by just 5kg (in the M4’s favour). Any chassis tweaks between them have purely been to bring equilibrium.

The consensus after a day at Castle Combe is that the M3 handles the tiniest bit sweeter, however, sliding with a touch more approachability. Though tyre life could have played its part; on road they’re impossible to split. What’s unarguable is how much burlier the M3 looks, its arches more obviously swollen and its intent somehow more brooding. Our pick? Stay in the minority (while saving £1,300) and go M3. Especially now there’s a Touring coming.

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Photography: Jonny Fleetwood

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